Spoken Word on Bleecker Street

Alysia Harris performs at Le Poisson Rouge. Photo courtesy of Remi Onabanjo.

Entering the shadows of Le Poisson Rouge, a “multimedia art cabaret” on Bleecker Street, is a bit like being swallowed into the sultry depths of a red-tinted cave. The atmosphere hums with the dampness of drink and low voices as the close-packed crowd waits for the performers to take the stage.

On this night, the performers were the poets belonging to the company The Strivers Row, a touring group of spoken word artists and musicians with a particular feel for New York. The company is named for the historical section of Harlem townhouses known collectively as Strivers’ Row. Many of their works reference issues of growing up in New York, from the struggles of young love in less than hospitable surroundings to grappling with the obstacles of race and socioeconomic status in college and beyond.

Despite the intimate aesthetic of Le Poisson Rouge, The Strivers Row is no small-time group of performers. On the night I attended, Alysia Harris, Jasmine Mans, Carvens Lissaint, Joshua Bennett, and Zora Howard each performed. Harris is a two-time national spoken word champion and currently studying for her PhD in linguistics at Yale. Mans was recently named one of Glamour magazine’s Top Ten College Women 2012. Lissaint was the 2011 Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion. Bennett is pursuing a PhD in English from Princeton University. And Howard was the youngest poet ever to win the Urban Word NYC Grand Slam finals.

But their brilliance extends far beyond the listing of their accomplishments. Their poetry is raw; certain lines vibrate in your ears for days after hearing them.

Carvens Lissaint performs his poem “Tell Them” at Le Poisson Rouge. Photo courtesy of Remi Onabanjo.

You carry a kernel of the performance with you in the form of these phrases. It is hard, for example, not to long to join Harris when she pleads, “Become dust with me—insignificant and everywhere,” in her “Death Poem” Likewise, there is a sense of wakefulness and awareness of the blood coursing through your veins as Lissaint implores, “Tell them, before I am six feet beneath the soil, before the maggots hug my flesh into a shivering carcass, you tell them that Carvens Lissaint was human,” before storming proudly off the stage.

Although you can watch all of these poems performed on YouTube, there is something inexplicably beautiful about seeing them performed live—nothing quite captures the intonations and the sweat on the performer’s brow as being in the same room while they open the door to the inner corners of their minds.

As with every show at Le Poisson Rouge, top-notch performers in an intimate space make it worth the trip downtown. And even though you won’t be able to catch a show by The Strivers’ Row for a while (they’re currently on tour in Europe), the venue has a full events calendar from now until winter break. Check it out here!

–Laura Booth, CC’15

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